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On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Four

The second kind of Following, what I’m calling Strategic Following, is in many ways the most complex and nuanced.  I’m not blindly obeying Mum because it’s a habit I formed when I was tiny or I’m utterly dependent on her for survival.  I’m not being forced to follow by threats, pain or fear.  I’m Following because, in some way or another, it serves my best interests.  


Calling this “Strategic” Following is probably a mistake on my part, implying that the animal is making calculated decisions and manipulations.  They’re not, not really.  This kind of Following isn’t strategic as in Machiavellian; it’s strategic as in Darwinian.  If a behavior enhances survival and reproductive fitness, it’ll be in our behavior repertoire for use when the circumstances call for it.  The strategic or calculated part is recognizing in what situations and contexts Following will get us more bang for our fitness buck, something social animals are extraordinarily good at.  Adaptive Following might be a better term.  The thing is, the point of any behavior is to enhance fitness, or, in simpler terms, to have things come out better for the animal, not worse.  And that’s a better (more pleasure, resources or access to resources) according to the Following Dog, not the Leading Human.  Therein lies the mess.


Strategic Following comes in two broad flavors.  The first is simple:  Mutual Interests.  I’m Following you because we’re already going in the same direction, it’s more fun or safer or more effective to go together, I like company, I’m social and why not?  We’re both going out for pizza, let’s car pool.  You just happen to be a bit more energetic, have a better car, or care about it more, so I let you drive.  No fight or quarrel from me—I will follow your lead because you’re taking me where I already want to go.  Or, I just like you and enjoy the ride.  In this flavor, Follower/Leader may be a loose relationship that depends pretty much on a spatial or temporal dynamic:  who goes or gets there first?  Some days it might be me, some days it might be you.


I see this form of Following often in feral cat colonies:  one cat starts heading for the bushes and two more get up and tag along.  Why?  Maybe it got too hot on the porch and the sight of the first cat moving inspired the others to wake up.  Maybe cats Two and Three are merely curious and want to see what First Cat is checking out.  Or maybe they just like hanging out together.  It seems like a weak kind of Following—First Cat isn’t making the other cats do anything—but if the learning conditions are right, it can acquire an almost magical power. 


It’s simply this:  if Following First Cat reliably and predictably leads to pleasurable things—cool napping spots, fresh drinking water, a nest of fallen birds or a package of catnip mousies—First Cat will acquire Followers.   Just like a hot movie star, a well-written blog or an amusing Facebook page will acquire Followers.   It’s not the authoritative version of “Lead” we’re used to thinking about in a dog training context.  But anyone who has ever watched old news footage of thousands of hysterical teenagers greeting the arrival of the Beetles can tell you—Fandom can be an extremely intense form of Following.  Some of those sobbing children would have quite literally died for their favorite Beetle.  I can think of famous people I’ve never even met to whom I would, without hesitation, happily offer the proverbial shirt off my back, because their writings or music or science took me to places of pleasure I couldn’t reach on my own.  I Follow them not because they demand it but because I love where they take me.


There can be a Dark Side to this kind of Following, sure—stalking in fans, separation anxiety in dogs—but on the whole, I think the Pop Culture notion of dog training radically under-estimates how important this kind of Following is.   If I could hit the reset button, my message to pet owners might be something like this:  less Pack Leader, more Rock Star.  Or more First Cat.  If we reliably and predictably take our dogs to places, activities and resources they love, they will Follow us.  They will become our very best Fans.


The second flavor of Strategic Following is also based on mutual interests, but there’s a more obvious Follow/Lead dynamic for a very simple reason:  one of us is either better or more competent at something or one of us has access or control of resources that the other one wants.  If I’m hungry and you’re the one with the directions to the pizza place, I will Follow you.  If I’m the one with the good singing voice, I’ll get nudged into leading Happy Birthday at the party.  If my car has a flat and Joe knows how to fix a flat tire, I’ll gladly take his direction.  If you are the millionaire, you may acquire an entourage of flatterers currying your ego in the hopes of scoring some cash.  We do this all the time:  if we know someone is really good at something or has control of something we dearly want, we’re usually happy to let them Lead or become Followers.  Usually.  There are conditions, though, and they’re interesting.


In the first variation—that of greater expertise--while most of us are perfectly delighted to defer to greater skill and experience, we won’t Follow very long if it turns out that we’re mistaken.  If we grant someone the Leader position, we expect them to be able to deliver the goods.  If it turns out that they’re a crummy Leader—they don’t know where the restaurant is, they don’t know how to fix the toilet, they don’t know how to set up the tent—we will re-evaluate.


If there are no major social side-effects (like offending our boss or hurting our best friend’s feelings), we may simply flip on our Garmin or grab the crescent wrench or tent poles and assume the Lead ourselves.  Rarely is this because we really want to be Alpha; what we really want is dinner, a toilet that flushes and the tent up before nightfall.  If we refrain from taking over—and some of us will bite our tongues and inhibit—it’s often because being “nice” and socially accepted is more important to us than the immediate outcome.  Or because we completely lack the needed skill set and simply can’t take over.  In either case, we’ll stash the experience in our learning file:  don’t Follow that person again.  Either find another, more competent Leader or DIY.  Or, in matters of small importance or when maintaining the social component is huge, we may continue to bite our tongues and Follow—it’s called humoring, which can be gracious or grudging.  As a general rule and absent those pesky social complications, the better and more confident we are at something and the more we care about the outcome, the fussier we are about who we’ll Follow.  If we’re good at the task, our expectations will he higher: ineptitude will be painfully obvious. 


In the second variation—control of resources—the terms are very much the same.  If we Follow someone because they control access to desired resources, we expect them to pay up.   At least often enough, and generously enough, to make it worth our while.  If they don’t, if it turns out that they’re a stingy Leader—they never share, they never really give us what we want or they make us work too hard for too little—we will start looking for work-arounds.  Maybe we need to work for another company, find a better Boss, find an indirect way (cheating, sneaking) to get to the resources or learn to get the resources ourselves without help.   


The general rule here is—the more valuable the resource is and the harder it is to find, the more guff we’ll take from whomever controls it.  But very few of us will take infinite amounts of guff.  We may stomach a tyrannical Captain Bligh if he’s a good captain and leads us to glory and treasure; we may continue to stomach him if we’re under fire and he’s an excellent fighter who protects us during battle.   But if he’s a tyrant and an idiot and a lousy fighter, we will start planning our mutiny at the earliest opportunity.   


Of course, if he’s Captain Jolly who dishes out extra rum, we may Follow him even if he’s a bit of an idiot—until war breaks out and his idiocy puts us at real risk.  Then, we’ll probably try to be nicer about how we conduct our mutiny, since we like the poor guy—but we’ll still mutiny if we feel our lives depend on it.


The first flavor of Strategic Following—the one revolving around the perception of expertise—is less commonly considered in dog training than the idea of controlling resources.  But I have to say, it worries me a bit.   See, if I had the magic machine that could ask my dog Tinker what was most important to her in her world-view, I have a nagging hunch the answer would revolve around a sun other than lil ole me.  My hunch is, it would be something like, “Sniffing.  Hunting.  Critters.  RACCOON ON THE FENCE!  Sniffing.  Sniffing.   Hunting.”   Nothing lights my Catahoula mix up like the raccoon on the fence—the intensity of it vibrates through every muscle, the dead-still focus of her point, her gaze, the explosion when she judges the moment is ripe to have a go.  It’s got the feel of something very old, very elemental.  In that raw primitive way, it’s beautiful to see.


It is also, of course, a complete pain in the behind in a pet dog that’s supposed to be obedient to me, not her inner predatory drummer.  So I should be the Leader, yadda yadda, except when it comes to that, we’re not even marching in the same parade.  When it comes to providing expertise in the all-important skill-set of hunting, I suck.  I suspect Tinker—who is not stupid—knows that I suck.  My nose is worthless, I’m pitifully slow, I never try to bite anything—golly, it’s like I don’t even care about getting that raccoon in my teeth for a meal.  It would be one thing for Tinker to Follow me if I was the better hunter.  But to Follow me when there’s a raccoon on the fence and the path is Don’t Hunt…?   How would she wrap her mind around that?  How could she? 


Telling her, “No, stop!” isn’t Leading in this context.  If we are clear on nothing else, we must be clear on that.   It’s abandoning the field, refusing to participate in what to her is the Greatest Game Ever Played.  Being a great Leader of the football team doesn’t mean pulling out sets of knitting needles and telling all the linebackers, “No, stop, don’t tackle, make baby booties.”  If we look at Strategic Following, Adaptive Following, it’s not blind.  It’s situational, contextual.  It’s Following not for the benefit of the Leader, but for the entire social group Team.  Critters that Follow the Leader down a primrose path over a cliff on the Leader’s every random whim may be marvels of obedience but there aren’t many of them around: they go splat! or starve before they reach reproductive age and pass their genes along.


It’s easy to be seduced by the dark side of Be the Leader with these dogs—we want so desperately for our linebackers to mend their ways, to no stop don’t and take up gentile pursuits like knitting baby booties or coming when called.  The flaw in the thinking is that many of the behaviors that I see distressing pet owners the most are entirely natural, common doggy behaviors.  Perhaps a few ticks more intense than the human is used to but normal.  The conflicts that ensue often don’t resemble a frustrated owner trying to establish “Leadership” over her dog, but a bewildered owner trying to morph an energetic, highly active social predator into a completely different animal.   And that’s not what Strategic aka Adaptive Following does.


When we ask our dogs to abandon behaviors that they really care about and that they’re really good at in favor of behaviors that our human sensibilities find more appealing that they don’t care about and aren’t good at… hmm.  If someone asked me to give up something I that dearly mattered to me—some talent core to my being--out of my “love” for them, I would wonder:  Do you know who I am?  Are you appreciating or connecting to me as an individual with talents and desires and needs of her own?  Dogs of course are not philosophic or conceptual about this.  Tinker is blessedly straightforward:  there’s a Raccoon on the Fence, she really cares about it, she’s really good at it and if I have nothing helpful to contribute, she’ll flip on her own Garmin and DIY.   “No” is not Leading.  It’s being a killjoy.


And she would be fair to ask, like many dogs if they could ask, “If you don’t like my hunting (herding/drooling/digging/shedding) why the hell did you get a Catahoula (Border collie, Mastiff, Terrier, Shepherd etc.)?”  The fact that I thought I was adopting an adorable little Australian Cattle Dog puppy is no fault of hers.  It leaves us with a challenge, but it’s not the challenge of Who’s the Boss?


What I need to find with Tinker—as with any successful long-term relationship--isn’t control.  It’s compatibility.   When it comes to Strategic Following, important in the design is—mutual interests, mutual goals.  Wanting the same things.  Being headed in the same direction.  Wolves and coyotes and foxes have no problems with this with each other: they are the same species and the compatibility is fundamentally shared.  They don’t tell each other, “Don’t hunt, don’t roll in stinky dead stuff, don’t dig.”  Their Strategic Following is about joining up with great hunters, tagging after the critters that know where the best stinky stuff is to roll in and learning from experts how to dig even better. 


To the degree that owners have or can cultivate core compatibilities with their dogs, the relationship will flow like a dance, effortlessly and easily.  To the degree that the core compatibilities are missing, or missing in extreme—well, it’s just hard.  Couch potato person with Energizer Bunny Dog is the classic bad fit; there are others.  These are folks and dogs I see at the shelter and they break my heart.  Lovely people, lovely dog, absolutely the wrong match.  If the gap between behavior reality and owner expectation isn’t too extreme, for certain training can bring dog and owner closer together and reduce tensions.  The wider the gap, though, the more work it will take to get them on the same path.  If the gap is a yawning chasm, it may be impossible, not because the dog can’t learn and the owner can’t learn, but because there’s too little positive reinforcement present in the relationship to motivate them to do the work.


The other trap is that we tend to work the problem from the wrong end:  we stand in our frustrated and disappointed expectations and try to drag the dog across the chasm to our side.  In wide disconnects, though, the distance is too far and the ropes of the relationship too thin to take the strain.  Good training always starts on the other end: in the behavior reality.  The dog is here.  I have to stand next to the dog, connect to that dog, that place.  Only then can we, step by step, start working our way across the gap.

In the next blog, I’m going to bounce ahead and talk about the last type of Following, Forced Following, and then return to that staple of dog trainers everywhere, encouraging Strategic Following by leveraging resources.  Until then, a couple of take-aways.


The good news about Juvenile Following is that very young puppies are often delighted to let us chose the direction, the path, the game itself:  they haven’t been around long enough to have developed strong preferences.  We can and should take advantage of this period to establish good habit patterns from the start.  The bad news is—most of the time, Juvenile Following fades with maturity, and if we didn’t establish the habits, we’ve missed a boat that’s not coming back for us.  And if we acquired an older dog, an adult dog from a rescue, say, the boat may be long far gone.  Not always—there are some lovely dogs that retain the puppy-like ease, or that seem to slide from Juvenile Following to Fandom with few glitches.  They are compatible with us and our human ways, and living with them is rarely a struggle.  A lot of dogs are just like that.  But it’s not a guarantee, not part-and-parcel of every dog. 


There are dogs that come to us, whether puppy or adult, with some potentially very powerful behaviors pre-installed.  Hunting, herding, being sensitive to sound or movement, nervous of novelty, fearful of strangers, inclined to “think” with their amazing noses or dig lunar landscapes in our gardens--we don’t teach them this stuff.  We can if it’s moderate make it better or worse by reinforcing it, or preventing repetition and practice.  Not always, though.  My darling Corgi Fox needed no practice, no repetition, no prior history to turn on like a light bulb and starting herding his first-ever seen sheep.  Tinker knows exactly how to drive a raccoon up a tree.   These “hard-wired” behaviors can usurp the Juvenile Following tendencies at a very young age because they’re supposed to:  they are what the dog or the dog’s ancestors were bred for.  And for these behaviors, Strategic Following via greater expertise is counter-indicated, so to speak.  Because for these behaviors, unless we really are taking our dogs herding, or hunting, or sledding, or to earth dog trials or lure coursing or any of the sporty versions that harness and work with these “drives” rather than against them--we can’t Lead.  We don’t know how to Lead.  We have no skills, no wisdom, no help to offer.  We stand on the sidelines going, “No, stop, don’t!”  We’re killjoys, not experts.  Worse, we’re upset, frustrated and ineffective killjoys, waving knitting needles and baby booties in the middle of a football field while our pumped-up linebackers run amok.  From a cost-benefit Strategic Following standpoint, the dogs are absolutely right to ignore us:  we have no mutual interests.  We’re not even playing the same game.


Does that mean we throw up our hands in despair and abandon all hope of ever getting our dogs with us?  Heck, no.  It does mean—you start with the dog you have.  In behavior reality.  Because if you want to train or teach or lead effectively, you have to know the animal, what matters in their world.


Tinker and I are a work-in-progress, and I have a goal for us.  When she looks at me, there’s something I want her to see.  Not a Great Leader, not the Boss, not the Alpha.  When she looks at me, I want her, on whatever level her doggy mind processes it, to know this:


Tinker, I feel you.  I see you.  I will always see you. 

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